Another View

Why the Somalia report failed to shock

Canadians need to rediscover their lost idealism, and to convince young people that public service is an honorable calling

Charles Gordon July 28 1997
Another View

Why the Somalia report failed to shock

Canadians need to rediscover their lost idealism, and to convince young people that public service is an honorable calling

Charles Gordon July 28 1997

Why the Somalia report failed to shock

Canadians need to rediscover their lost idealism, and to convince young people that public service is an honorable calling

Charles Gordon

Another View

In the first week after the release of the Somalia report, the airwaves were abuzz, not so much with questions about the report, but with questions about the public response to the report. No one was responding. The question was why?

A substantial amount of the CBC Cross-Country Check-Up coverage was devoted to the failure of the public to show its outrage over the outrages the Somalia commission reported. That night’s CBC television news brought word of something called “the yawn factor,” by which was meant the report, explosive as it was, failed to generate any emotional reaction among the Canadian people.

The people paid to think about why had some answers: many of the findings had already been reported; the inquiry had gone on too long and the public was worn out; the initial revelations that brought on the formation of the inquiry were so shocking that the people did not want to hear any more.

All quite plausible, those answers. But a much more frightening possibility needs to be considered—that Canadians are no longer capable of being shocked. If that is true, it is not because we have developed a thick skin after exposure to many horrors. It is because we have learned somehow to expect the worst from our public institutions and the people who work in them. Tell us, for example, that a cabinet minister takes bribes and we are not surprised. Tell us that a government doesn’t keep its promises and we scarcely blink. Tell us that some members of our armed forces have dishonored their own proud traditions and those of the nation, and we flip over to the movie. It is not so much the Yawn Factor as the So What? factor.

The lack of rage over the Somalia report reflects, in other words, a deep cynicism on the part of Canadians. We cannot be roused to anger over the misdeeds of public officials and institutions because we do not expect any better of them. When they go wrong, we are not surprised.

To what do we owe this? You are holding part of the reason in your hand. Ever since the Watergate scandal in the United States and the subsequent reporting of it, the news media, here as well as to the south, have delighted in ferreting out the sins of those in government. Some of those sins have been more imagined than real, many of them have been penny-ante stuff, but the tone of moral outrage has never varied. We approach the entire apparatus of authority— politicians, public servants, judges, police officers, the armed forces, the universities, even the church—with the assumption that no one is up to any good. It is what George Bain, one of the smartest journalists around, has described as “gotcha journalism” and it is having its effect.

Although Canadians are not known for the great trust they place in journalists, the constant harping on the evil that public officials do wears down popular resistance eventually. Canadians come to expect it, and when someone—a reporter, a commission of inquiry—finds a real wolf, the public yawns and says, yeah, whatever.

You would think politicians would have an interest in rectifying this situation, but in fact they have been their own worst enemies. Remember Brian Mulroney in 1983, then a candidate for the leadership of his party, talking about “self-centred, boggy-brained public servants.” He added: “We’re going to give them each a budget and orders to live within it, something they’ve never dreamed about, much less done, and when they can’t deliver, they’ll be given their pink slip and a pair of running shoes.” That seemed to work quite well and ever since, politicians have been happy to seek votes by running down their own kind, none stopping to think about what the long-run consequences might be.

Even the federal Liberals, traditionally the friends of the public service, contributed to the declining image of government service. They did it not by talking about pink slips and running shoes but by cutting jobs. The message for the public was clear enough: if the jobs are that easily cut, the work cannot be all that important.

In Canada, the worst offender has been the Reform party. Copying a tactic that has worked for some years in the United States, Reformers have campaigned on the notion that politicians are bad and that the public should vote for candidates who are not really politicians, namely Reformers. To the extent that Reform has been successful, those ideas have become acceptable, falling nicely, as they do, into the “gotcha” propensities of the media. It is not difficult to imagine the logic of the people when confronted with all this: if even the politicians say the politicians are bad, then why trust them?

The reason for some people’s glee over Preston Manning’s belated decision to move into Stornoway, a taxpayer-owned “mansion” he had publicly shunned as an unnecessary frill, is that we are seeing him acknowledging, however reluctantly, however indirectly, that those in public life are worth something after all. It is fun to picture him in the dining-room at Stornoway, eating his words.

There needs to be more of that if public service, in the broadest sense of the term, is to recover its reputation in Canada. We need an infusion of young people with idealism to rescue our politics and our institutions, bring them back into favor. But the infusion will not come until those young people can be convinced that they are entering a useful, even honorable, profession.

We can start by refusing to accept corruption and deceit as simply the way the game is played. We can start by demanding that people live up to their promises. If those who serve us think it does not matter to us if they behave, there is no incentive for them to do so.

It is time for us to be shockable again.